GUIDING LIGHT: New methods that employ light to reveal and control neural activity are enabling researchers to study individual circuits in animals—work that should also lead to a better understanding of how the human brain functions. Image: Alfred T. Kamajian
- Neuroscientists have traditionally studied the function of the brain by stimulating and recording the activity of single nerve cells with electrodes. But this method is indirect, making analyses of specific neurons very difficult.
- The emerging field of optogenetics, which combines genetic engineering with light to observe and control groups of neurons, is allowing researchers to scrutinize individual neural circuits—an approach that will revolutionize the study of brain function.
In 1937 the great neuroscientist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington of the University of Oxford laid out what would become a classic description of the brain at work. He imagined points of light signaling the activity of nerve cells and their connections. During deep sleep, he proposed, only a few remote parts of the brain would twinkle, giving the organ the appearance of a starry night sky. But at awakening, “it is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance,” Sherrington reflected. “Swiftly the head-mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.”
Although Sherrington probably did not realize it at the time, his poetic metaphor contained an important scientific idea: that of the brain revealing its inner workings optically. Understanding how neurons work together to generate thoughts and behavior remains one of the most difficult open problems in all of biology, largely because scientists generally cannot see whole neural circuits in action. The standard approach of probing one or two neurons with electrodes reveals only tiny fragments of a much bigger puzzle, with too many pieces missing to guess the full picture. But if one could watch neurons communicate, one might be able to deduce how brain circuits are laid out and how they function. This alluring notion has inspired neuroscientists to attempt to realize Sherrington’s vision.